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Was the Brexit timeline always unrealistic? Back in 1982 it took Greenland three years to leave

It took Greenland three years to complete their exit negotiations with the EEC and that was a lot less difficult, writes Jason O’Sullivan.

THE BRITISH PRIME Minister Theresa May will be returning to Brussels in her audacious bid to secure “alternatives” to the much maligned and divisive issue of the Irish backstop.

Her attempts to reopen negotiations on the 585-page withdrawal agreement as previously agreed between the UK and the 27 member states of the EU, seems an impossible task.

Particularly, if one is to listen to the commentary coming from Brussels and the Irish government. They have articulated in unison their diplomatic disdain and contempt at the thought of having to reopen the painstakingly negotiated agreement that had safeguarded the continuation of the Irish border in its current state.

Nevertheless, such imminent EU talks will soon unfold and in the interim, certain UK political figures and media will continue to condemn and blame the Irish backstop for all their Brexit woes.

No doubt, such rhetoric is inherently unjust but will remain a useful distraction from the self-serving nature and disarray of modern-day British politics.

If one is to point the proverbial finger of blame, however, the premature triggering of the deadline placed on Brexit by the British government appears to be a far more apt target.

The well documented and foreseen complexities existent within Brexit, in the first instance, demanded there be a far more realistic timeframe set to achieve such a monumental task.

In hindsight, it is fair to argue that Theresa May was grossly unrealistic in her ambitions, when she set in motion Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, on 29 March 2017, leaving an automatic deadline of two years as the exit date.

On the day of the announcement, the former SNP leader Alex Salmond pointed to disunity across the UK and had urged the government to delay the triggering of Article 50.

“After nine months of this prime minister’s approach to Brexit, Northern Ireland is deadlocked, the Welsh are alienated, Scotland is going for a referendum, the English are split down the middle,” he said.

Prior to May making that decision, one would have assumed her trusted advisors would have verified whether triggering a two-year timeline at that point was realistic.

Despite the internal pressures from her own party, or externally from the EU to announce a date, a mere perusal of Greenland’s exit should have set alarm bells ringing.

In 1982, Greenland voted to leave the EEC and it took until 1985 to complete its contentious exit negotiations. Greenland itself is the largest island in the world and a former colony of Denmark. Although it still remains part of the Danish kingdom, it has its own devolved government in a similar manner to Scotland within the UK.

When Greenland voted to leave the EEC, one of the key policy reasons was its concern over fishing rights – the country’s primary source of income.

With a population of approximately 56,000 in comparison to the UK’s 66 million, Greenland’s exit would have been deemed rather simplistic by comparison. 

Despite this the negotiations were drawn-out and politically fraught, taking nearly three years and requiring over 100 meetings between diplomats and officials.

Greenland’s lengthy departure, albeit different, clearly demonstrated that any subsequent exit from the European Union would be latent with bureaucratic, diplomatic and legal challenges.

Even more so if one acknowledges the considerable increase in policy, social and legal complexities, including the EU’s greater expansion and influence in the intervening years since 1982. Taking into account these economic, political and societal intricacies existent within Brexit, time was always going to be a critical issue in achieving an orderly exit.

It is still anyone’s guess how the Brexit conundrum will eventually conclude with the deadline of 29 March 2019 looming. 14 February is the next date the members of the House of Commons could conceivably revisit the debate on the extension of time and potentially avoid a “no-deal” scenario.

At this late stage, given the deep factions amongst opposing sides, the most prudent policy for the UK to implement would be to request the extension and for the EU to grant it.

This request would then be formally considered by the European Council at its next scheduled meeting on 21 March, requiring the unanimous consent of its 27 members. If granted, it would give all sides some breathing space and time to find a compromise that may hopefully avoid a future “no-deal”.

If an Article 50 extension is not invoked or requested, and a “no-deal” Brexit ensues on 29 March as feared, some level of blame should be apportioned to those who failed to heed the lessons learned from Greenland’s exit from the EEC.

Jason O’ Sullivan, is a Solicitor and Public Affairs Consultant at J.O.S Solicitors 

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